Light and shade played such fundamental roles in seventeenth-century Dutch and Flemish artists’ representation of the natural world that we may take for granted the complexity and ambiguity associated with their use and meaning in the early modern Netherlands. Ulrike Kern’s Light and Shade in Dutch and Flemish Art, tackles those very issues by exploring how seventeenth- and early eighteenth-century artists and writers depicted, discussed, and deconstructed the concepts and practices of applying light and shade. The book examines the subject through the lens of Dutch art theory and practice, from Karel van Mander’s 1604 Het Schilder-boeck to Gerard de Lairesse’s Groot schilderboeck of 1707, and in the works of a wide array of artists, among them Peter Paul Rubens, Rembrandt van Rijn, Nicolas Berchem, David Teniers, Leonardo da Vinci, and Nicolas Poussin. Showing the significance of light and shade for understanding the artistic innovations of Netherlandish art in its Golden Age, it demonstrates the rise and later fall of the strong chiaroscuro that characterizes Dutch and Flemish art in the middle of the seventeenth century. At the same time, the study argues that Dutch art theorists made important contributions to the discourse surrounding chiaroscuro in European art of the period.
The book’s contribution to the scholarship on Dutch art theory is significant and adds a rich and fresh dimension to a still largely understudied area of research. Rather than focusing on a single figure or treatise as more recent important studies have done – Thijs Westeijn’s The Visible World. Samuel van Hoogstraten’s Art Theory and the Legitimation of Painting in the Dutch Golden Age (Amsterdam, 2008) and Lyckle de Vries’s How to Create Beauty. De Lairesse on the Theory and Practice of Making Art, (Leiden, 2011) – Kern follows a conceptual and thematic approach, relating to the work of scholars such as Hessel Miedema, Paul Taylor, Eric Jan Sluijter, and Michèle-Caroline Heck. However, she establishes a broader framework for her book by bringing the writings of Dutch authors into direct and often lively dialogue with Italian, German, French, and English sources, thus effectively situating Netherlandish attitudes towards light and shade in a greater European context.
Organized into six chapters that develop conceptually and chronologically (for the most part), the book succeeds in laying out the principles and nuances – textual and visual – of the uses of light and shade by Dutch and Flemish artists. The aim of this structure is to elucidate the shifting artistic tastes and practices from Rembrandt’s style of chiaroscuro in the earlier part of century to the clear, bright style known as helderheid that emerged at the end of this period. This organization has a clear logic, but Kern also departs from the historical chronology within each chapter in order to examine how different authors and artists addressed a particular concept in their work. This way, the text oscillates between a bird’s eye view on the subject to one of greater depth: providing insight into the roles of light and shade in the development of Dutch, and to a lesser extent, Flemish art, and presenting a critical analysis of focused theoretical problems and artistic terminology. Key concepts in Dutch art theory, including welstand, houding, schikking, and reddering, which lack clear-cut translations into English, are examined in new ways and with numerous examples (helpfully many in color).
Throughout, Kern demonstrates how the demands of light and shade in art were in fluid dialogue (and sometimes in conflict) with the laws of nature. Central threads in each chapter are the ways in which artists and theorists tried to reconcile the two, and how those demands existed within a larger context of artistic tradition, natural philosophy, science, and aesthetic taste. Kern’s brief discussion of the term ‘chiaroscuro’ (Introduction, 11–13) encapsulates these ideas. As she explains, the Italian word ‘chiaroscuro’ was understood to mean “an intelligent arrangement of light and shade” (as defined by Dutch biographer Jacob Campo Weyerman in 1729), whereas ‘light and shade’ as a concept (licht en donker, licht en schaduw) referred to an interplay of “pictorial effects and the optics of actual light effects” (12). This distinction defines Kern’s understanding of how Dutch and Flemish artists negotiated the actual effects of light and the aims of achieving a pleasing composition.
Chapter One, “The Army of Shadows,” begins with Philips Angel’s speech to the Leiden Guild of St. Luke in 1641. As Angel states, “…it is not enough simply to say that the good arrangement (het wel schicken) of shadows is necessary, but all painters, whoever they may be, must hold it as the highest [aim]” (32). After discussing Angel’s concept of grouping – what he calls the ‘army of shadows’ — and its importance for creating coherence, unity and kracht (force) in a composition, Kern turns to Roger de Piles’s analogous metaphor of the grappe de raisin (Cours de peinture par principes, 1708). These concepts are explored further in the writings of Samuel van Hoogstraten and Gerard de Lairesse, as well as in the paintings of artists such as Rembrandt, Rubens, Philips Wouwerman, and Adriaen van der Werff. This movement across time allows the reader to delve deeply into a concept of central importance for the use of light and shade, while observing the interconnected strands of artistic practice, theory, and taste. There are moments, however, when one struggles to keep up with Kern’s historical leaps.
The following five chapters develop concepts of light and shade and how they evolved over the century. Chapter Two investigates reddering, a critical term which Willem Goeree first used in his Inleyding tot de algemeene teyken-konst in 1668. Goeree, reflecting his knowledge of Traitté de la peinture de Léonard da Vinci (Paris, 1651), explained how the distribution of alternating bands of light and dark create spatial recession, three-dimensionality, and unity in a composition. Goeree and later Lairesse agreed that reddering could be found in nature, but Lairesse’s recommendation that artists follow this practice as an absolute rule — even if he did not himself – demonstrates the ambivalence that existed between artists and writers, and theory and practice. The following chapters on the use and meaning of flat shadows (Chapter Three) and cast shadows (Chapter Four) take optical effects into greater account, as well as the differences between artificial and natural light, and universal and direct light. Here again, Lairesse disagreed on certain accounts with Goeree, including over the firm lines of flat shadows (in drawing) versus Lairesse’s recommendation for (painting) shadows with soft, blurred edges. Naturalism was always at stake, and no more so than with cast shadows, which directly contended with the laws of nature and perspective. In a landscape etching by Schelte a Bolswert after Rubens (Return from the Fields, c. 1638), the artist(s) depicted the cast shadows in opposite directions – contrary to natural principles but pleasing to the eye (122). While such inconsistencies disturbed Lairesse, many Dutch and Flemish artists simply did not agree.
The final two chapters rest more heavily on light: the properties and functions of reflected light (Chapter Five) and the emergence of the ‘heldere wyze’ (Chapter Six). This last chapter elucidates the most significant change in the use and taste for chiaroscuro in the second half of the seventeenth century. The desire for clarity and brightness through universal light, as discussed by Arnold Houbraken in his Groote schouburgh der Nederlantsche konstschilders (1718–1721), represents the shift away from Rembrandt’s distinctive and dramatic handling of light and dark. This change was not only reflective of larger artistic fashions across Europe, but also indicative of the driving tastes of connoisseurs and collectors.
Bringing these various themes together, Kern demonstrates consistencies across the art of the Low Countries. The broad approach reflects more recent efforts to consider seventeenth-century Dutch and Flemish art as part of one larger Netherlandish tradition, unifying an often divided field. The present book is a significant addition to this literature, while making fascinating conclusions about how artists and theorists negotiated the art of chiaroscuro.
The Clark Art Institute